Carrie Poppy tells all

Pharyngula 2013-08-07

I think the cork has been popped, and we can expect more stories to come flooding out now. Karen Stollznow spoke out, and now, Carrie Poppy has sent me her story. Carrie abruptly left the JREF a while back, and would not speak publicly about her reasons for leaving, but now, with Stollznow’s example, she tells all.

I do have her permission to publish this account.

Dear PZ,

Thanks for you recent coverage of Karen Stollznow’s ongoing harassment in her workplace and the assaults she says she endured at skeptical conferences. I have been in close contact with Dr. Stollznow in recent months, and have confirmed and clarified various details with her that I think you will find very relevant to your blog. Dr. Stollznow has given her blessing for me to send these details to you, as well. I am CCing Dr. Stollznow, too.

Most of these details have to do with my former employer, the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). I left the JREF in November 2012, after only six months there. I quit in protest of a number of ethical issues; foremost was what I perceived as the president, D.J. Grothe’s constant duplicity, dishonesty, and manipulation. I did not believe he had the best interests of the organization or community he “served” at heart. This was difficult for me, as Mr. Grothe and I had been friends prior to my joining the staff. Yet, it was very clear by the time I left that my continuing to work there was being complicit in unethical behavior, including the kind of behavior of which Dr. Stollznow is now on the receiving end. I have not spoken very publicly about my experience at the JREF, for various personal reasons, but one of them was cowardice. I simply didn’t want to have to defend myself, relive the six months of misery I’d already endured, or be branded as on one “side” or another of an ongoing debate. I simply wanted to move on. But as Dr. Stollznow’s story, and others, came to light, I knew I couldn’t keep quiet any longer. Dr. Stollznow’s experience is too much like so many women’s in skepticism.

Here are the most relevant facts:

1. Dr. Stollznow says that she was assaulted at the James Randi Educational Foundation’s (JREF) annual conference, The Amazing Meeting (TAM) on three separate occasions. Dr. Stollznow is a research fellow for the JREF, and is a respected speaker at TAM. The person who she says assaulted her is Ben Radford, another speaker at TAM and a long-time ally of the JREF’s. I am not speaking to the legal validity of these claims, as I have no legal expertise on the matter, but I believe Karen’s account, given the information she’s relayed to me in private, which I won’t recount here.

2. Dr. Stollznow says she made these alleged assaults known to JREF president D.J. Grothe several months ago, but according to Karen, he declined to do anything about the matter.

3. CFI told Dr. Stollznow that they would only be reprimanding their employee for his behavior. Dr. Stollznow let Mr. Grothe know that she felt her harassment and assault were being treated as nothing more than a grievance among friends, and Grothe responded, ” I am happy to learn from you that the CFI has responded to your complaints with the seriousness they deserve.” (see attachment 1).

4. Dr. Stollznow requested that Mr. Grothe assure her that her alleged assailant would not be at future JREF events, for her safety and the safety of others at future events. Mr. Grothe declined to ban the speaker, saying, “there are at present no such plans” to have Mr. Radford speak at a JREF event, more than a year before the next TAM, and well before speaking engagements are secured (see attachment 2).

5. Dr. Stollznow approached the JREF board, asking them to intervene in Mr. Grothe’s bizarre behavior, and make a commitment not to have the speaker in question at future JREF events. Their response: “JREF does not and will not have a blacklist” (see attachment 3).

I wish I could say that I found Dr. Stollznow’s story shocking or unprecedented, but I cannot. In my time at the JREF, I witnessed continuous unethical behavior, much of which I reported to the Board of Directors. I was assured on more than one occasion by James Randi that D.J. Grothe would be fired (I hear Randi denies this now, though he repeatedly promised it to another staff member as well, and that staff member and I represented the entirety of JREF full-time staff other than D.J. and his husband, Thomas), but after several months of waiting and being asked to wait, it became clear that D.J. was not going to be fired. The list of problems that I sent to the board was so long that my pasting it here would be comical at best, but it is relevant to note that although I didn’t list it, Mr. Grothe’s prejudice toward women was one undeniable factor. My predecessor, Sadie Crabtree, had warned me about D.J.’s misogyny and disrespect for women coworkers (she even advised me not to take the position, due to this issue), but I thought myself strong enough to endure it. I underestimated the degree to which such constant mistreatment can beat a person down. As I mentioned, I only lasted six months.

The final straw, for me, was that Mr. Grothe attempted to remove me as a speaker from the Women in Secularism 2 conference, going above my head (and Melody Hensley’s head) to her male boss, Ron Lindsay, and telling him that it would be bad for the JREF’s image if I attended a “feminist conference.” In defending his actions to me, D.J. told me he didn’t trust me to handle the event, saying I would be asked if he was a sexist (an unanswerable question in his mind, apparently) and that I might break down in tears crying about my own sexual assault, if the issue of rape arose. I was given no credit for the fact that I am a professional spokesperson with almost a decade of experience, that I have a successful skeptical podcast, am a published author, and that my personal assault experience makes my opinions on assault more relevant, not less. To him, I was a hysterical woman, nothing more.

I am not going to say more on this on public forums– No doubt, people will press me for evidence and take the side of the organization and individual in power. When it comes to institutional power, the leaders are innocent until proven guilty. What so few realize is the converse of this: the victims are guilty until proven innocent.

I don’t want to send this email. I don’t want to go public with my story. I don’t want to receive the emails or the tweets or the phone calls. But fuck it. It’s the right thing to do.

Thanks for taking the time to read about my experience. And please, let’s all stick by Karen and ask the JREF to (1) install new leadership, and (2) protect their attendees and respect their research fellow by not allowing her alleged assailant to attend future events.



cc: Dr. Karen Stollznow

Attachment 1

From: D.J. Grothe Date: Fri, Jul 5, 2013 at 2:20 PM Subject: Re: CFI Investigation To: Karen Stollznow

Thank you Karen for informing me of this email, but you certainly were under no obligation to do so. I appreciate how difficult the situation must have been for you, and I am happy to learn from you that the CFI has responded to your complaints with the seriousness they deserve. Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you personally, or the JREF might assist you in any way.

See you in less than a week in Vegas. And talk soon.. D.J.

On Jul 4, 2013, at 4:59 PM, Karen Stollznow wrote: > Hi D.J., > > I wanted to update you with the results of CFI’s investigation into my complaints regarding Ben Radford. > > Please see attached the letter they sent to me. I think they have trivialized and minimized my complaints and they have also made some factual errors. My complaints go back to 2009, not 2012, and I don’t know what Barry means by “retaliation”. They won’t give me a copy of the report. I will be taking this further. > > At any rate, they have admitted that Ben has behaved inappropriately at conferences and harassed me with unwanted correspondence. I think this is info you need to know. > All the best, > > Karen.

Attachment 2

From: D.J. Grothe Date: Fri, Jul 5, 2013 at 3:27 PM Subject: Re: CFI Investigation To: Karen Stollznow

I did read your email carefully, Karen. And I do know that you were unhappy with aspects of CFI’s response, including the inaccuracy on time periods, etc. as you mentioned in your email to me.

And no, you were under no obligation to send me CFI’s letter that they sent to you. Reporting to me developments in general terms, without detailing specifics of CFI’s HR decisions regarding their employee, would have sufficed if you wanted to let me know if matter was resolving, developing, or changing, etc.. And I certainly don’t mind that you shared it, indeed, as I said, I do sincerely appreciate your letting me know of these developments. This is for a number of reasons not the least important of which is because as a conference organizer I certainly do not want to involve speakers who harass or otherwise abuse other speakers or attendees or who engage in other misconduct or disrespect of personal boundaries.

As for incidents happening TAM proper, I know that you never made specific complaints at those times, instead later focusing on seeking CFI action, for the understandable reasons you originally communicated; that CFI is his employer. And that you also discussed these matters regarding Ben Radford with our consultant and with me personally by email. And you did notify us clearly that if Ben Radford were to be on our program, that you would not. As you know, he is not on the program at TAM, and we are very happy that you are.

Actions JREF took after the phone meetings and emails with you include: keeping a detailed record of your communications and concerns on file for future reference (this is important not just in an HR sense, but also if there are other patterns of behavior that would need to be corroborated because of further developments), our consultant on HR matters having phone meetings and emails with you, and also that we clearly reiterated directly to Ben (as well as other past TAM speakers) JREF’s policies regarding misconduct at our public events. This is in addition to JREF’s internal HR policies for its employees that prohibit sexual harassment of any kind in the workplace.

Since Ben Radford is not an employee of the JREF, we cannot reprimand him like his employer could, but we have told him that on our watch he is to have no contact with you whatsoever, should he ever be involved with the JREF in the future (for the record there are at present no such plans). Obviously, this issue is moot as regards this year’s conference for reasons we have discussed a couple of times already.

Again, please let me know if there’s anything further I can do personally, or that JREF can do organizationally, to assist you, or to help you with CFI if you, or as you, pursue the matter further.

See you next week Karen. I really look forward to it. D.J.

Attachment 3

On Jul 5, 2013, at 1:41 PM, Karen Stollznow wrote:

Hey D.J., Of course I had an obligation to send you the letter – several incidents occurred at TAM. You had to be made aware of this so you can protect conference attendees in the future. Now we have a record that you know about this.

I don’t think you read my email carefully though because I’m not happy with CFI’s blase response. As I said, I’m taking this matter further with them.


From: Chip Denman Date: July 24, 2013, 5:17:19 PM MDT To: Karen Stollznow Subject: Re: A matter for the attention of the JREF Board

Dear Karen –

Thank you for contacting the board. We hope that Elliot has been helpful to you.

We have discussed the matter with DJ.

JREF does not and will not have a blacklist. Currently the foundation has no plan to invite Radford to TAM or any other JREF function.

We are unsure if you are asking for anything more than this. –Chip

On Sat, Jul 20, 2013 at 4:26 PM, Karen Stollznow wrote:

Dear Board members,

I am a Research Fellow of the JREF and I wish to bring to your attention a situation that reflects poorly on our organization.

In February of this year I drew D.J.’s attention to a very serious matter. At TAM 2010 I was sexually assaulted and harassed by another speaker by the name of Benjamin Radford. I was also sexually harassed by him at TAM 2012. I had attempted to handle this both privately and professionally so as to not embarass the organizations involved. When Mr. Radford’s behavior continued I was then forced to file a formal complaint with his employer (CFI/CSI) to resolve the issue. An investigation was performed and he has since been found guilty. (I can supply evidence to attest to this decision.) D.J. put me in communication with Eliott Canter who has continued to be my JREF contact for this matter. My complaint is that D.J. is well aware of this situation and its severity, yet he continues to demonstrate public support for Mr. Radford on social media. Furthermore, he proudly and publicly advertised taking Mr. Radford out to the “Magic Castle” last night during his visit to L.A.

My request to the Board is that the JREF fulfill the obligation of its anti-sexual harassment policy by making a firm commitment to not invite this predator to any future JREF function. I also ask that D.J. cease his public displays of support for Mr. Radford which act as an endorsement for this man who is currently being disciplined by his employer for his actions.

In light of recent controversies within the skepticism movement it’s important that the gravity of this matter is acknowledged by the Board. The JREF needs to lead by example.

Thank you for your support. Dr. Karen Stollznow.

By the way, you can listen to Carrie Poppy’s podcast, or follow her on twitter.